Africa Policy and Futures Forum

Liberia: A Reflection

By Ansumana Konneh on March 25, 2022

In 1822, the first group of freed Black slaves made it to the shores of what would later be known as the settler state of Liberia. Because of the divinity attached to repatriation to Africa, the island on which they landed was named Providence. In 1847, Liberia declared its independence in defiance of British intrusion and the annexation of some parts of the country. By then, the idea of black equality was a founding creed and the promise of building a nation where discrimination deeply rooted in the Black experience would be provincialized and put at bay.

But as such, during the settler-occupation, the Americo-Liberians endeavored to create a nation where whiteness was hated as much as a certain form of blackness. H. Boima Fahnbulleh, a Liberian political philosopher, argues that ‘Liberia was neither African nor Western in its bid to create an autonomous identity.’ This is evident by the constitution of 1847 which gave citizenship to only people of Negro descent. By Negro descent, the framers of the Liberian constitution meant former slaves whose lifestyle and experiences gave them moral justification to marginalize and oppress other Africans. This was done in the Hegelian sense, where the conscience of the civilized sought the death of the ‘other’- the uncivilized, the superfluous, the excess being. In the formation of the settler state, it was a tapestry of divide and conquer, maintained through three structures: The family, Masonic Craft, and the Church (as argued by H. Boimah Fahnbulleh). These were set up to ensure political and economic security for the Americo-Liberian ruling class.

To be part of the political space, one had to be part of one of the aforementioned structures, or risk being at the brink of society.  During this era, those who came from the hinterland and spoke languages peculiar to the black elites were discriminated against. In 1847, when Liberia declared independence, citizenship was denied to the Natives. They were granted citizenship after years of struggles and efforts by Pan-Africanist Edward Wilmot Blyden and others, whose appeal to the elites to integrate with the Natives was an epiphany to the new systems of reality. According to the historical accounts of Joseph Saye Guanue, the Natives were only granted citizenship in 1906 and were not allowed to vote until 1944 - a year prior to the 1945 general elections.

The history of Liberia is complex and polarizing. It is one of historical phenomenality, especially now as the country continues to deal with increasing social retrogression, the decline of the quality of life, and individual and institutional deficiencies as a consequence of its history.  Though white settler colonialism never took shape in Liberia, the country’s situation is colonial where the institutions of power and economic preeminence are reserved for a certain class of people immune to the suffering of the vast majority of the people.  The impact of such a system continues to influence the current Liberian society with the so-called Native and Americo-Liberian divide which fuels corruption, misuse of public offices, and the dissipation of the politics of ideas for tribal and religious affiliations.

The repercussions of the monopolization of political leadership and economic power for the ruling class extend to date because economic growth has only impacted the lives of a particular class. In consequence, there remains a grudge among Liberians that fall into different spectrums of the economic ladder. It was a result of this system that led to the election of George Weah as president and ultimately everything structurally, politically, and ideologically wrong with his regime, mired by corruption and arrogance of those in power. In a society where the state is set up in antagonism to the needs and interests of the underlying population, George Weah is what a revolution looks like, especially considering that opposition to that system only tends to perpetuate it with the same elements alternating power between critics and perpetrators. 

The oligarchy in Liberia created an entropy of tribal and religious segregation, hate among Liberians,  which consequently led to the 14 years of civil war.  This was precipitated by the 1927 war between the Krahn ethnic group and the Liberian government, the Rice Riot in 1979, and the subsequent coup in 1980 by officers of the Liberian armed forces. The coup in 1980 was predicated on the historical discontent of a people long denied a universal breathing space, a people whose sons and daughters had been sold to the Spanish Island of Fernando Po by their own government, and whose labor had been exploited by multinational corporations like the Firestone Rubber plantation through the ingenuity of their own government. 

Today’s Liberia is eclipsed by a residual hatred among Liberians, which is deeply rooted in its past and the fundamental moral principles that drove the formation of the settler state. Tribal and religious relations remain frailed. Elections, rather than policy, are organized on such a basis and national development or consciousness is affected as a result. There’s no national identity because such identity has been subsumed into tribal identity, making it difficult to have a national consensus and universal co-existence among Liberians.  Dealing with the situation in Liberia requires creating a national identity, detribalization of the state,  investing in universal education, strengthening the rule of law, creating economic prosperity, and addressing systemic inequality by opening up the democratic and economic space to allow meritocracy as opposed to political patrimony--which is the order of the day of the system in the country.

Ansumana Konneh is the Co-Founder of the Africa Policy and Futures Forum and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of African Challenges. 

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